Houston was rocked by a large explosion in the early dark hours of Friday morning, which could be felt for miles across the city, when a manufacturing facility in the northwest erupted in a massive fireball. Houston police have confirmed that at least two people died in the blast, with one plant employee still missing, and a criminal investigation is underway as to the cause — though there's no evidence thus far to suggest an intentional act or terrorism was involved.
Damage to homes was reported up to a half-mile away after it occurred at about 4:15am, some 18-miles away from the downtown area, though people reported being jolted from their sleep for miles across the city. Later in the morning Friday multiple people were reported hospitalized, and others may still be missing.
"We have no evidence at this point ... that an intentional act is involved. Having said that, part of our protocol is always to (start) a criminal investigation" Houston police chief Art Acevedo said, who also ruled out terrorism. "It's going to take days, if not weeks or months, to get a final determination of what's going on here."
Early reports suggest propylene tanks ignited, which is a common but extremely flammable gas used at manufacturing plants. The explosion occurred at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing where emergency crews are still trying to contain a possible gas leak.
Local videos showed a large fireball rising from the site of the plant in the blast's immediate aftermath. Officials say the blast was so big it appeared on weather radar.
Police further issued a statement calling for the public's help, and suggested the grim reality that body parts of blast victims may have spread from the site.
"People who are within a mile of the blast site should look for debris — including body parts — and report it to authorities if they see something," Acevedo said.
"Please search your homes, and if you can, take a look at your roof," the police chief added.
The ATF is also assisting the investigation. Throughout the morning, the site was still unsecured and the area considered dangerous:
Flames no longer were visible by daylight, but firefighters hadn't explored the blast site because an unspecified gas was flowing in the damaged business, and crews were trying to shut it off, Houston fire Chief Samuel Pena said.
"We won't be able to get in there until we secure that," Pena told reporters at a news conference.
"Entire structures were destroyed in the blast. Homes were blown off their foundations in the adjoining neighborhood, authorities said," as reported by local ABC 13.
NEW: FF have cleared this street so they’re letting us get a look at the worst of the damage. This area was taped off earlier. Most everyone gone. It’s a ghost town. This is Stanford Ct & Valleywood Dr #abc13 pic.twitter.com/fmYuy3ox6H— Courtney Fischer (@CourtneyABC13) January 24, 2020
In the early morning hours firefighters were seen going door to door in surrounding neighborhoods checking on residents. At least one person has been reported missing.
"Broken windows, doors, and garage doors were also reported across a wide area around the blast site," the report said.
Over the past year there's been multiple manufacturing and chemical plant disasters in the area, especially in the port area, where residents have feared air and water contaminants.